Ambient Awareness and the Digital Village

This week’s NY Times Magazine features a thoughtful meditation on virtual relationships, ‘digital intimacy’ and the effects of our ever-revelatory online behavior on our real-life social and emotional lives. Clive Thompson takes a look at the growing universe of social networking and broadcasting on the web (resulting in a sort of vague omniscience coined “ambient […]

At the same time, Thompson suggests, our increasingly documented and transparent online lives may be facilitating a warped return to Old World, small town social dynamics – where everyone ‘knows’ everything about everyone. 

…If you don’t dive in, other people will define who you are. So you constantly stream your pictures, your thoughts, your relationship status and what you’re doing — right now! — if only to ensure the virtual version of you is accurate, or at least the one you want to present to the world.

This is the ultimate effect of the new awareness: It brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everybody knows your business. 

…“It’s just like living in a village, where it’s actually hard to lie because everybody knows the truth already,” [Sociologist Zeynep] Tufekci said. “The current generation is never unconnected. They’re never losing touch with their friends. So we’re going back to a more normal place, historically…”

An interesting evolution. This got us thinking, though: small town social dynamics are predicated on towns being, well, small. People knew each others’ business because on some (perhaps surface) level, they care about their fellow townsmen. And if they don’t, it’s still hard for them to exist outside of the town’s interconnected social structure and not be held accountable to their community.

Today our ‘small towns’ are ephemeral, virtual networks made up of hundreds of people, many of whom we hardly know (if at all), existing over a handful of different websites and platforms. The residents that make up our “villages” are only as real and permanent as the versions of themselves they choose to exhibit, and our relationship to them can vary in salience and significance depending on a number of variables and choices ranging from deliberate (setting new privacy options) to arbitrary (i.e. wireless availability) to superficial (whether or not one’s profile picture is ‘cute’ that day). Our small town is now an infinite world of revolving friends, strangers, and micro-celebrities. How will the mechanics of a village society work under these new conditions? Only time will tell… 

NY Times Magazine: I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You

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